Getting Started in SW Listening - Part I
Ken Reitz, MT Beginner's Corner
if I told you there was an inexpensive wireless plastic box which could give you
the latest news 24/7, in dozens of languages, in real time, and do it for free?
Would you be interested? Forget about your cable news networks, fancy satellite
TV systems, on-line news sources and the hundreds of dollars and monthly fees
they represent, because I’m talking about shortwave radio.
70 year old technology, international shortwave broadcasters beam a steady
stream of news, information and music to hundreds of millions of listeners the
world over every day. Because of the nature of the shortwave bands anyone can
listen to nearly every nation’s voice using the simplest of receivers no
matter where they live. But, before you can join in you’ll need to know what
kind of shortwave radio is best for you to buy. So, let’s go shopping!
How to Buy a
world events have made shortwave radios more popular than ever and units have
been flying off retailers' shelves. Consumers are confronted with a wide array
of shortwave radios from $39 to over $6,000 and, unless you're shopping for
price alone, it may not be clear which one to buy. In general, shortwave radios
can be classified into price groupings: under $100, $100-400, $400-900, and $900
and up. Let’s take a look at the under $100 group first.
group represents the bulk of shortwave radio sales. They are turned out by their
Chinese manufacturers and sold worldwide by the millions each year. Still,
thanks to advances in electronic circuitry, amazing reception can be had for
very little cost. As I’m writing this, I’m listening a Radio Shack bottom of
the line Realistic DX-350 which measures just 7" x 4.5", less than an
inch and a half thick, and with a telescoping whip antenna less than 2 feet
long. The radio sits next to the computer, which generates a great deal of radio
frequency interference (RFI), and yet this diminutive radio brings in all the
major international broadcasters with excellent signals and good audio without
any strain on the ears. And, in a portable mode with moderate use, this radio
will run for months on four “AA” batteries. What more could I want?
for starters the 2" x 2" analog tuning dial is hard to read and trying
to locate a specific frequency on the dial is mostly a matter of guessing. There
are also gaps in the tuning ranges which don’t allow listening in between the
bands listed on the dial. Further, there’s no single sideband (SSB) button in
order to tune in amateur radio operators or digital modes such as weather
facsimile (WEFAX) or radioteletype (RTTY).
brings us to the $100-400 range. The most obvious difference is the addition of
digital tuning. On these radios, tuning is done by pressing buttons on a numeric
keypad. The tuned frequency is displayed on an easy-to-read liquid crystal
display (LCD) panel. But, the real power of the microchip is the ability to
store items in memory. These sets typically feature 40-50 memory presets, with
some radios having room for as many as 300. Casual shortwave listeners will
probably be hard-pressed to store more than 40 frequencies in memory.
the other amenities in this group are the addition of SSB reception, continuous
tuning without gaps in frequency, cassette recorder output jack, and built-in
clock with timer and on/off functions. Some units in this price group actually
have built-in cassette recorders which, when used in conjunction with the
timers, can record broadcasts while you’re sleeping. A bargain among this
group is the Sangean ATS505P which includes keypad tuning, digital display,
continuous tuning (540 kHz to 30 MHz as well as the commercial FM band), SSB
reception, and an external power supply for $130.
are some drawbacks to this group as well. The extra options, microprocessor, and
bigger audio section requires more power, and these units will typically use
eight “AA” or four “C” batteries and may not run nearly so long as the
cheaper analog radios. These units are considerably larger and weigh from 2 to 4
pounds, a consideration when hiking or camping.
$400-900 group is where the serious shortwave listening equipment comes in.
While there are some portables in this group, most are desk top radios known as communications
receivers. This is also where you'll find the new computer-based receivers.
the amenities are external antenna connectors, extended RF spectrum coverage
(often into the Ultra UHF range), advanced tuning modes (including narrow and
wide bandwidth selections), as many as 1,000 memory presets, computer
connections for importing data, and actual signal strength meters. These
receivers typically feature frequency tuning by both keypad and manual tuning
are few drawbacks to this group as well. You should know that most do not
feature a built-in antenna and will require an external (outdoor) antenna for
optimal reception. They also have a large desk-top footprint -- typically
9" x 9" -- and weigh 6 to 10 pounds.
last group, $900 and up, is for government agencies and SWL enthusiasts who
simply must have the best equipment available. With frequency ranges to 3
Gigahertz (GHz) these are all-band all-mode receivers which feature multiple
antenna connections, RS-232 ports for computer interfacing, built-in noise
filtering, extraordinary bandwidth filters and more. These super-sensitive
receivers will tune in just about anything transmitted on the HF spectrum. Their
all-mode capability at higher frequencies make them good candidates for
monitoring polar orbiting satellites. Again, in this group you’ll need
external antennas, and, for satellite reception, special tracking antennas will
also be required.
Buying New – Buying
biggest advantage of buying a new radio is the warranty. If something goes wrong
with your unit it can be repaired or replaced free of charge. Used radios,
particularly when buying through private parties, carry no such warranty.
However, most commercial companies dealing in used shortwave equipment such as
Grove, Universal Radio, Amateur Electronic Supply and others include at least a
30 day warranty with their used gear.
a considerable market in used shortwave radios and some are worth looking at
more closely. Anything in the under $100 category is probably not worth buying.
These units are built very cheaply and the first thing to go is usually the
antenna. Finding a replacement antenna which works for such a radio may not be
worth the effort. Plastic knobs are sometimes missing or broken, analog tuning
dials may be stuck or non-functioning. Unless someone is giving away the radio,
you’re better off buying new in this category.
in the next category can easily be had. The reasons for this are that radios in
this category are usually made better, consumers tend to take better care of
more expensive items, and these radios are often sold by SWL enthusiasts who are
trading up for better radios and are anxious to preserve their resale value.
Look for widely sold brands with longevity, such as Sony, Sangean, and Grundig.
In the event your radio needs repair it’s easy to send it away for factory
authorized service. These particular brands tend to hold their value and
you’ll have little trouble selling your unit when you decide to trade up.
values in the $400-$900 group can also be had with a little looking. The
production quality of these radios is very high and they’re not generally
susceptible to obvious wear and tear. Most catalog retailers take this group in
on trade-in all the time, typically cleaning them up and making certain that
they are performing properly. Lists of used equipment can usually be found at
the retail websites and occasionally in their catalogs. But, used radios are in
short supply and move quickly off the shelves. If you see one that you’ve been
looking for, it may not be there long.
Radios of Note
you’ve spent any time at all looking for shortwave radios you’ll have
noticed quite a few in discount catalogs and various retail stores. Sometimes
real bargains can be had. I’ve seen one big name portable shortwave radio
which regularly sells for $200 in the shortwave catalogs selling for $100 in one
such discount catalog. Keep your eyes open and know what you’re seeing!
make sure from the catalog retailer that the item pictured in the catalog is
actually what you’re buying.
type of receiver is the “Vintage Recreation.” These are usually multi-band
radios recently manufactured to look like vintage radio sets. The cases are
usually plastic and the receivers are simple solid state boards used in many
other models. The idea is to evoke the era of the tube radio with classic design
of the ‘30s and ‘40s when radio was king. The resemblance, however, ends at
the visual appeal. These radios should be purchased as decorative items only
whose value is not likely to increase. One case in point is the Grundig Classic
960 anniversary edition, which was to celebrate the old ‘50s Grundig standard
of table top shortwave radios with the fabled Grundig sound. Unfortunately, the
resemblance ended as soon as the set was turned on. The original sets which sold
in the late ‘90s for $400 can be found in discount catalogs for $100.
you’re really interested in vintage shortwave radio listening, there are tens
of thousands of genuine period shortwave radios from the ‘30s and ‘40s in
excellent operating condition which can be had for a reasonable price. Browse
the usual web auction sites and look for these old sets at ham fests. Real
working vintage shortwave receivers can be found from $100 to $200. They’re a
real joy to listen to and make great additions to your listening post.
the next installment I’ll cover where to tune,
when to tune, how to tell time, and what those strong signals with strange
sounds are which are found all over the shortwave bands.